Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Banaue Rice Terraces, Luzon, Philippines

Banaue Rice Terraces, Luzon, Philippines - visited April 15, 2018
Aerial view on the descent to Manila
I referenced a vacation in the last couple of posts and I'm finally getting around to doing the write up. I haven't been back to the Philippines for a few years and I was due back. I normally go mostly to visit my relatives but for this trip, I wanted to see something of the country. So I decided to take a week off and go play tourist.
Descending into Ninoy Aquino International Airport

Aerial descent - almost there
I purposely arrived early on a Friday morning. The first couple of days were taken with visiting with relatives, paying my respects to my grandmother's grave at the nearby cemetery, having a memorial lunch in honor of her birthday and getting my hair straightened for a fraction of the price it would've cost me in the US. But two days later, it was time to switch to tourist mode.
My cousin, Emmanuel (Emman) and I left early on Sunday morning for the Banaue Rice Terraces. This has been on my bucket list for years and is considered the “eighth wonder of the world”. My cousin Abby had arranged for a driver/tour guide, Jesse, to take us to the terraces and a nearby town of Sagada to show us the mountain province.

Jesse arrived at 4:30 am and we were soon on the road. The Banaue Rice Terraces are quite far from Metro Manila which was our starting point. I had originally read it was an 8-10 hour drive but that’s dependent on traffic as well as weather. If you’ve never driven or been driven in the Philippines (I don’t recommend driving there unless you can list “New York cabbie” on your resume), you need to let go of all your preconceived notions about traffic laws, rules and flow. Just close your eyes and let a good driver drive you around. Otherwise, you will twist yourself into pretzel knots of stress every time you see oncoming traffic, another vehicle you swear is going to crash into you, pedestrians who you also swear are going to be brushed by cars and random dogs who don’t seem to get out of the way fast enough and you just know they’re going to end up under the wheels of a random vehicle. Except they don’t. 

As cringeworthy as I find the driving in the Philippines, I’m perpetually astonished that it all works for them. I’ve never seen a car crash there (I’m sure they happen but considering the driving, it’s mindboggling that there isn’t one every minute), I’ve never seen anyone run over or even clipped by a car and the animals casually stroll out of the way in the nick of time.  Filipino drivers are an amazing class unto themselves. 

Case in point, Jesse, our driver, was adept at navigating the traffic and, beyond the Manila area, the twisting, curving mountain roads as we headed to Banaue. If you’ve ever driven the road to Hana in Maui, imagine it something like that with twisting, winding roads, some of them becoming one lane so that you had to take turns with oncoming traffic over who goes next over that particular stretch of road. 
Unlike New York cabbies whom I’ve ridden with, there is a lot more give and take with the drivers in the Philippines. Slower vehicles are habitually passed and expected to be passed. A polite honk is a signal to let the slower driver know you’re coming up on their left and about to pass. The other quirk of driving in the Philippines is a honk is a signal that you’re planning to move forward, not an annoyance that someone pissed you off and you’re making your feelings clear about it.

The road to Hana in Maui (the Hana Highway) is 103.6 kilometers long and can take 2.5 hours to drive. From Manila to Banaue is 465.6 kilometers. It took us almost 12 hours. Yep, twisty, winding, curving mountain roads for about 9-10 of those hours. Not gonna lie, it was brutal and I was just the passenger. I can’t imagine being the driver. Knowing it was a long drive ahead of time, I had planned ahead and was listening to an audio book to while away the time. But it was still a long slog. We made a brief stop for breakfast along the way but we waited to have lunch until we got to a “top” point where a restaurant was situated for tourists such as ourselves that gave a commanding view of the rice terraces. 

And commanding they were. I took a number of pictures from a few different points where we stopped along the way. I am awed by the magnitude of the Banaue Rice Terraces. I had seen pictures of them online but it really is something to behold in person. They’re said to be over 2000 years old and were created mostly by hand and very few tools, given the time when they were created. They’re Philippines’ version of the Egyptian pyramids or China’s Great Wall. According to Wikipedia, if you put the terraces end to end, they would encircle half the globe. I can’t even wrap my mind around that. It must’ve taken generations to create and they’re still there to this day.
Since it was April, it was planting season before the rains arrived. October/November is the harvest season when the terraces would be golden with rice ready to be harvested. I’m glad I saw it when it was green. It was majestic. This is what I had come to the Philippines to see. I was born there but raised in the United States. Whenever I went back to the Philippines, it was primarily to see my relatives and we stayed mostly around the metro Manila area, with the occasional forays to Baguio or Tagaytay. This was the first time I came on my own and played tourist so far afield from home base.

I’m glad I did. Banaue isn’t a tourist spot where you go and do a bunch of “stuff”. You go to see them in person and pay homage to the generations of Filipinos who started, continued and finished the wonder of these terraces carved into mountain sides farther than the eye can see at any one point. It made me reflect the vision they had, the needs driving them at the time and the patience and perseverance it took, handed down from generation to generation by tradition and calling to create it. Also imagine the community it took as no one person did this. It was many. Many people, many families, many communities. Even factoring in the lack of tools at the time and the ingenuity not to mention sheer sweat equity, they also had to contend with the climate and weather.
We were reminded of this as, shortly after we had finished lunch and were taking more pictures, it started to rain. We had about 30 seconds of sprinkles as a warning but by the 31st second, sprinkles had turned into “deluge”. This was the tropics, after all. It really started to pour so it forced us back into the car to head for our hotel for the night. Which was about 59 kilometers from where we were, all back down those twisty, winding, curving mountain roads and took another 2 hours. Only this time, with the torrential rain, those one lanes (sometimes two) started to flood. Major, major props to our driver Jesse for navigating the downpour, slick roads, mud, flooded lane(s) and sometimes hillside erosion blocking the road with skill and precision. We never once fishtailed or stalled out or overcorrected to avoid a road hazard. It couldn’t have been easy but he did it with the same patience and skill as on the drive up under sunny, benign conditions.

Travel bucket list – Banaue Rice Terraces? Check.

Given the long, brutal drive, I confess I’m not sure I would do it again so it will go into the column of “once in a lifetime” experience (right along with the one full marathon I’ve run) but I’m glad I did it in my lifetime. It was really something to behold.

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